Lessons from Pastoring Through Racial Tensions
by Steven Lee
Pastor, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When I was growing up, race was always an issue where I lived, but I don’t remember it being quite as charged as it is today.
Growing up in a predominately white elementary school, I remember being called “Chink” and “Gook.” I remember classmates mimicking my slanted eyes as they spoke gibberish. I remember trying to distance myself from the Southeast Asian students that had come to our community as refugees. I remember doling out racially insensitive slurs sadly typical of the playground and the basketball court.
Now as a pastor, speaking about race, racism, and ethnic harmony seems to be one of the most polarizing topics today, not only in the world, but even within the church. Everyone has a take, everyone takes sides, and it often feels like a lose-lose proposition.
“Christ-loving people advance Christ-exalting priorities.”
Few things today are as divisive, hostile, fragile, challenging, and complex as race relations are in America. Yet on this weekend, remembering the work and vision of Martin Luther King Jr., we remind ourselves from the word of God that we can and ought to remain hopeful.
Where We Need to Be
In his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, King addressed those who had experienced “great trials and tribulations . . . battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality . . . veterans of creative suffering. . . .” Yet King exhorted his listeners to not lose heart:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
King held out hope that there would be a day when his dream would become a reality. We are not where we were in 1963, but in 2020 we are not yet where we need to be. Our world is still full of violence, animosity, division, prejudice, racial animus, bitterness, anger, hard-heartedness, and indifference. But instead of wallowing in despair, Christians recognize that we are called to advance not the American dream, and not ultimately King’s dream, but the far better dream, the end-time Revelation reality, that is coming to all who hope in Christ.
Dream Deeply Rooted in God
Every believer and local church is called to make disciples of all nations with the authority of Jesus Christ himself (Matthew 28:18–20). This global mission of making disciples — baptizing and teaching Christ’s commands — will culminate and climax with unparalleled unity in diversity, a heavenly choir comprised of every ethnicity on the face of the earth. The Book of Revelation sums up this glorious, end-time, Christ-exalting biblical dream for us:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9–10)
This is the end. There will be every nation represented. Every tribe. Every people. Every language. No second-class citizens. No class of elite. No arrogance. No animosity. No hostility. Can you imagine?
“Few things today are as divisive, hostile, fragile, challenging, and complex as race relations are in America.”
Every wrong will be made right on that day. All the bitterness, misunderstanding, blind spots, hard-heartedness, antagonism, racial prejudice, systemic injustice, and personal sinfulness will be made right. How? Jesus has paid, with his own blood, for every sin of every sinner who trusts in him. For those who reject the free gift of salvation, their sins will be judged in the flawless courtroom of God. On that day, all division, disunity, and hostility will be done away with by the precious blood of Jesus Christ, poured out on his blood-bought people.
Lessons for the Church Today
If we really believe that will happen, the future should give us great hope for our present. I don’t know if we’ll figure out race relations in America in my lifetime. I suspect we will still be talking about slavery, systemic racism, injustice, police brutality, and racial animosity when my ministry ends. As a Christian and as a pastor, I lament, with great sorrow, how slow and grueling progress has been on these fronts.
But I’m grateful that someday it will all come to an end. There will be a day when justice will “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). God’s people can be conduits and advocates of this biblical justice here and now, and we eagerly await a day when God will bring it to pass perfectly.
In the meantime, Christians love and advance this glorious, end-time vision of a multiethnic gathering comprised of every tribe, tongue, language, and nation. Christ-loving people advance Christ-exalting priorities — in our personal lives, in our churches, in our families, and in our communities. As someone who pastors a church striving passionately for unity in diversity, here are three practices that have helped conform our hearts and minds to the priorities of our Savior.
1. Love and Pursue Diversity
What seems to be missing among many Christians, is a solid biblical conviction that ethnic diversity in the church is a beautiful thing, and part of God’s ultimate design for his people. It is inconceivable to me that a Christian can have a Christ-exalting love for diversity in the church and be hostile toward diversity in the nation. The knee-jerk hostilities I see betray, it seems, a very thin veneer of politically correct tolerance of diversity, instead of a deep, biblically grounded, cross-centered exuberance over God’s plan to reconcile all nations in Christ.
We need a renewed passion for Jesus’s blood-bought multiethnic bride revealed in Revelation 5:9–10.
2. Love and Pursue Justice
Justice is doing what is right and good according to what God revealed in Scripture. God loves justice. Consider Isaiah 30:18: “the Lord is a God of justice.” And Psalm 37:28: “the Lord loves justice.” God rules and reigns in perfect justice.
“Mutual love makes no room for division, divisiveness, and hostility in the one body of Christ.”
But God also calls his people to pursue justice in our world. Consider Psalm 106:3: “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!” Or Proverbs 21:3: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” To love and pursue justice is not to tolerate injustice. Instead, we heed Isaiah’s vision from God: “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17).
God’s people seek to advance true biblical justice today, while putting our hope not here on earth but on the perfectly just One who will come.
3. Love and Pursue the Outsider
We are not engaged in a war against our neighbors south of the border. We are not living in fear of refugees fleeing religious persecution, genocide, or political unrest. God commands his people in the Old Testament to love sojourners (Deuteronomy 10:19), to not oppress them (Zechariah 7:10), and to remember that he watches over them (Psalm 146:9). How much more should followers of Christ who have been redeemed by unmerited grace — who are sojourners and exiles here on earth (1 Peter 2:11) — love and pursue those who are oppressed and vulnerable?
We can seek to understand the refugee crisis and the immigration debate, and help to educate others around us in love, patience, and gentleness. [As God believed in the sovereignty of nations we believe in the rule of law and legal immigration.]
Why We Still Have Hope
Jesus has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). Our God-given, otherworldly love for one another tells the world we are Christ’s disciples (John 13:35). Christians will disagree on political policy, strategies for addressing problems, the extent of how far reaching this issue is, how we should go about addressing it in church and parachurch ministries, and which pathways forward are the most wise, fruitful, and timely. Mutual love, however, makes no room for division, divisiveness, and hostility in the one body of Christ. We can and should preserve the glorious unity we have in Jesus Christ.
“We are not where we were in 1963, but in 2020 we are not yet where we need to be.”
We have hope because we have Christ. And because we have hope, we can take meaningful steps to have our lives and actions reflect the values of Christ’s kingdom. Christ calls us to faith-filled action rooted in Christ’s work and his kingdom, not to earthly agendas on the left or right. We also ought to extend grace to others who have differing strategies, tactics, and levels of understanding as we recognize what we’re all striving to achieve.
In the last day — gathered around his throne, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, finally seeing face-to-face — we will see how we all fell short. No one engaged in these conversations perfectly. Everyone made mistakes along the way in our discovery and understanding of racism. No one will have the moral high ground in that day. We will all stand on level ground, grateful that God saves sinners, and marvel that we had an opportunity to play a part in advancing his end-time mission through our feeble and faithful prayers, labors, and participation.
Oh, may our Lord Jesus come quickly. And if he tarries, let us lock arms as brothers and sisters in Christ, to carry out his work, in his strength, for his glory, until he returns.